Lurking in the dark corners of lost Mughal provinces is the glory past of bejewelled necks and lavishly costumed bodies of heaven romancing to the rhythmic tunes of royal melodies-the tawaifs, the mujre wali, and the kothewali. The cultural treasures and artistic geniuses of then, now social outcasts and sexual objects of an institutionalized patriarchy.

‘Mujra’, a word often associated with eroticism or sexual dance styles, born of an Oudhi origin, was a performing art form solely reserved for the womb it was birthed at, that is, the royal courts. Under the tutelage of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the final king of Awadh, two storytellers known as Kathaks, Kalka Maharaj and Bindadeen Maharaj, expanded and perfected the classical dance form of Kathak, adding more drama and seduction till it was refined to Mujra. This dancing style was learnt and improved by the Nawab himself, who was a dancer of great skill and finesse. Therefore, the Ustads who were recognised with starting the Lucknow Gharana of Kathak later became the creators of Mujra.

Derived from the Marathi language, Mujra literally means ‘to bow down’. Before beginning a performance, it is customary for dancers to bow and pay respect to God, their Guru, and the audience. Namaskar and Salaami
tukdas/todas of Kathak have kept this alive. It was most likely this act of Mujra, or paying respect, that gave the performance its name. This symbolism can be seen in famous folk Bhajans of Uttar Pradesh like Ram Jharokhe- “राम झरोखे बैठ के सबका मुजरा ले, जैसी जाकी चाकरी वैसा वाको दे” (Lord Ram watches us all through
a window and rewards us in accordance with the intensity of our obeisance towards him.)

Holding these tokdas in the delicat elegance of their palm were Tawaifs. Contrasting popular connotations,
they were courtesans similar to Japan’s Geishas. Well-known culturists, aesthetes, collectors, and entertainers, they were artists who passively consumed the patronage they had received. The Tawaifs were the most powerful group of female citizens and made the most of their direct access to powerful males. They were supposed to be affluent in Hindi and Urdu languages, and learn poetry and literature. In a place known for being extremely competitive, only the wittiest and most self-assured remained. They were the first wave of feminists in the Indian peninsula and possessed land, which was a privilege enjoyed by few males, save for any woman. It was the incoming British who cracked down on Tawaifs under the guise of social cleansing in order to end kinship-based authority and destroyed the indigenous dynasty. To lessen their power over their respective leaders, the Tawaifs were stripped of their possessions and territory.

In the early 1800s, the British turned them into prostitutes and prohibited Mujra through a number of laws. A social purity movement that attacked non-hetero, noncis, LGBTQ+ citizens began soon after. Anti-courtesan laws were introduced in an effort to combat STDs. The governments of India and Pakistan adopted this atmosphere of shame after their respective independences. In Mumbai, the dance bars where the contemporary Mujra was practised were forbidden. The tawaifs of Pakistan were expelled to the outskirts of the city during the rule of the military ruler Zia-Ul-Haq.

After then, the Kotha facility was turned into a brothel, and Mujra was transformed into a suggestive and borderline filthy erotic dance show. For India’s indigenous performing arts, this was a horrible and irreparable loss, as a vast array of songs and dance forms also perished along with their keepers.

Mujra now takes the contemporary, reduced-down form of Bollywood songs like Salame Ishq and Inn Akhon
Ki Masti Ke performances in bars and wedding parties for a hefty price and a lowly occupation. According
to Kabir Kakkar, the talent manager of Lucknow’s K4 Entertainment Pvt. Ltd.,

“In Lucknow, most dancers are Indian, but the ‘big money’ dancers are from Uzbekistan, Russia, and Ukraine, paid between Rs 5,000 and Rs 25,000 per one-hour show. They are trained in Kathak or Bharatnatyam, and some have picked up mujra expressions and gestures from films like Umrao Jaan.”

The maker of the same film Umrao Jaan, Muzaffar Ali, claims that what we see now is not mujra. It’s all very
commercial and physical, as he puts it. “The art, where is it?”

The status quo of these dancing groups remains hazy with the transforming identity of what it is to be a ‘Mujre Wali’. They substitute their menial occupation with jobs in IT sectors, modeling agencies, and small acting roles in television serials. Because as accounted by one of these dance group owners, “It’s a bit demeaning to call them just mujra girls.

Aayat Farooqui

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In a Delhi that is slowly forgetting its history, Karwaan, a student-led Heritage Exploration Initiative, aims to revive the love for Delhi’s heritage.

“We began our journey in September 2019, when we organized a heritage walk to Tughlaqabad Fort with one of the most famous history buffs in Delhi, Sohail Hashmi. Since then we have organized many walks and lectures by historians at heritage sites. Our basic aim behind this initiative is to promote historical sites among university students.” says Eshan Sharma, a second-year student of B.A. (Hons) History from Dyal Singh College of the University of Delhi (DU). Along with a team of five other students- Nishant Singh, Aditya, Abhigyaa Mittal, Mansi Rautela, Nandesh Yadav- they started the initiative. Since then, they have conducted several walks around Delhi, along with organizing lectures.

Eshan Sharma, the founder of Karwaan, said to DU Beat, “We saw that people do not remember their heritage; do not remember their origins. So, we started with discovering Delhi’s heritage along with one of the most renowned history buffs of Delhi and one of our mentors, Sohail Hashmi. We then conducted several other walks in the historical sites of Delhi.”

They noticed heritage walks in the city costs around INR 600 a walk, which is a tad bit pricey for students, they decided to keep the charges low- charging between INR 200-300 a walk, with the lectures being free of cost. 

Currently, stuck in quarantine, they have been organizing a series of online lectures on history. These Facebook Live Lecture Series, which started on 4th April and will likely continue till the 30th, are talks where they invite renowned historians and scholars. Running for almost an hour daily at 6 PM, this is also an attempt to promote #StayHomeStaySafe. 

“As we are all getting bored right now, we at Karwaan decided that we must do something to keep us engaged in these times. This is also when students can make the best use of their free time by listening to these great sessions. So, we decided to conduct a series of online lectures. So far, we’ve had speakers like Manimugdha Sharma, Sohail Hashmi, Rana Safvi and Vikramjit Singh Rooprai who’ve spoken on topics like decoding myths about Aurangzeb, Mughal Paintings and the fourth city of Delhi,” adds Sharma.

Operating mostly from Facebook, they choose only those historians who have garnered genuine interest in teaching students and indulging in a deep discourse about their chosen topic. Speaking of lockdown, Eshan says, “We might extend the online lecture series if the lockdown extends after May 3rd.” 

Karwaan Heritage Walks, via Social Media
Karwaan Heritage Walks, via Social Media

The diversity of Karwaan’s attendees comprises of curious professionals, other historians and students beyond the history background. Talking of Karwaan’s expedition to various historical parts of Delhi, Eshan counts Tughlaqabad Fort, Mehrauli, Qutub Complex, a walk to Chandni Chowk and Jama Masjid. Karwaan also conducted lectures on Delhi’s history which gained a huge response from the attendees. “They take great interest in exploring and discovering Delhi,” Eshan continues. 

They plan on taking Karwaan to a higher level by launching their own history company in the future. “We are learning from the experts right now, we are inviting historians to the walk, hoping that someday we’ll lead the walk too.” 

Concluding, Eshan reiterates, any student can join them irrespective of their educational background. “They can learn at Karwaan, suggest changes; if they want to hear a speaker, we are just a message away. This is a great way to make their lockdown worthwhile!”

Interested students can check their Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/karwaaninitiative or Instagram handle @karwaanheritage.

Featured Image Credits: Karwaan’s Social Media

Satviki Sanjay

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Anandi Sen

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Slowly yet steadily, we see our monuments wearing and tearing away, taking away the glorious heritage that had been bestowed upon us. Let us look at what our role, as the posterity, should be.

Concentrated with a vast array of monuments and temples, the capital city of India, Delhi, presents itself as a hub of the Indian heritage. From the Red Fort in the North to the Tughlaqabad Fort in the south, comprising Humanyun’s Tomb, Jama Masjid, Jantar Mantar and numerous others lying in between, Delhi’s archaeological diversity knows no bounds. However, it is devastating to see the reverence for this diversity gradually fading away.

Do you remember the last time you visited Qutub Minar, or maybe Lodhi Garden with your friends or family? You must have noticed the walls and rocks, and even tree trunks, scribbled with hideous quotes like “Raju loves Pinky” or “Anjali + Prachi BFFs forever” or maybe simply “Gopal was here”. Honestly, it is highly doubted that one would care to find out whether Gopal visited Lodhi Garden or not.

It is hard to understand the thrill behind tainting these structures of such immense historical importance. One may say that the person wishes to “immortalise” his or her love for the other. But the question remains- at what cost? I find it fascinating to note that the scribbling is even found in places which is almost impossible to access without external support. I must say, I commend the dedication.

Very often people tend to go beyond simply scribbling their names or other abusive words; they use sharp objects and engrave them, especially where there is plastered work. One may not realise this but all these scribblings and engravings not only diminish the aesthetics of the monument but also degrade the quality, basically weakening the structural integrity following the pre-existing wear and tear resulting due to the time factor.

“Institutes like the Archeological Survey of India (ASI), Aga Khan Trust, and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) have been crucial in the renovation and restoration of our age-old monuments. It is sad to see the disservice we, as a society, render to these places of antiquity by defacing them or littering them. A feeling of pride that comes from our cultural heritage and history can only be sustained if we individually try to preserve what our ancestors have left behind,” says Shankar Tripathi, a history student from Hindu College.

Apart from this observed vandalism, the disregard towards the heritage can be seen in other forms. Go back to the last time you visited one of these monuments. Do you remember noticing young couples cozying up in some corner thinking they are invisible to the common eye? All these historical sites have today become merely a hotspot for lovers to unite being completely aloof towards the aesthetics that surround them.

Most people these days aren’t aware of the glorious history preceding these monuments; the journey that led them to exist in the first place. This tends to bring about a lack of appreciation for what these structures truly stand for. Heritage means different things to different people. The material traces found in the monuments are now merely an object of entertainment. Disheartening as it is, every day we stray further away from this heritage of our country, remaining ignorant towards its importance and values.

Heritage awareness remains an integral component of heritage conservation. Lack of such awareness among the public at large is one of the major reasons behind the damages faced. There is a serious need to change the public attitude and re-establish the feeling of respect and pride that we, as citizens of India, must experience towards the glorious cultural heritage that our ancestors have bestowed upon us.

Feature Image Credits: Surbhit Rastogi

Aditi Gutgutia

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